Nov. 11, 2001
AUTUMN IS a magical time of year. Especially for a college basketball coach. It's a time when anything is possible.
Players can make miraculous improvement. Top recruits might sign. When no games have been played yet, a coach can dream of wins, championships and Final Fours.
Yes, autumn is wonderful.
Except if you're Rick Pitino this autumn and you're trying not to think. Because if you're Pitino this autumn, you want desperately to fill every waking moment of every day and eliminate every last bit of idle time, because idle time means time to think and you know your thoughts will wander and sooner or later -- sooner, on most days -- you'll start thinking again about Billy.
And you know what that means. The psychological boomerang between sorrow and joy will begin again, the endless cycle of laughing about the good ol' days, then crying about exactly the same thing. Because you know that when you think, you remember, and it consoles you, right before it rips your heart out again.
This was supposed to have been a season of triumph for Pitino. He was back in the college game and back in the state of Kentucky, as coach of the Louisville Cardinals. Instead, it has become a season of loss.
Billy Minardi, Pitino's best friend for 32 years and the brother of his wife, Joanne, died Sept. 11 in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Minardi was an equities trader for Cantor Fitzgerald. He was at his desk on the 105th floor of the north tower, his first day back at work after returning from a golfing vacation at Pebble Beach ... with Pitino.
Pitino and his wife were devastated.
"For the first two weeks, we were as a family crying 12 hours a day," Pitino said, sitting at a table in the conference room of a Chicago hotel. "We did so much together. It's an emotionally draining experience for the whole family because he was so close."
He spoke quietly, carefully, hands folded in his lap, as though lack of movement would help control his emotions. Pitino, 49, has aged in the past two months. His face is no longer that of the Boy Wonder who drove Providence into the Final Four in 1987 and won a national championship at Kentucky in 1996. Three-and-a-half years with the Boston Celtics, a trial that began with great promise but ended with unfulfilled expectations, took its toll. So did the loss last March of another brother-in-law, Don Vogt, who was hit and killed by a taxi in Manhattan.
Minardi's death was the worst of all.
"Now everything seems harder," Pitino said. "There's so much pain around."
Pitino met Minardi when both were students at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay. Pitino was a senior and a basketball star in 1970 when he met Joanne Minardi. The couple began dating. Immediately, Pitino fell in with her younger brother, too. Rick and Billy were mirrors of each other. They shared the same likes and dislikes, followed the same sports teams, had the same passion for living life and having fun along the way.
Recently, Pitino and his wife were talking about Minardi, one of those 10-hour marathons that careens between emotional extremes.
"You know," Pitino said, "I always loved him more and that's the reason I married you."
He was half-kidding. Joanne was not.
"I always knew that," she said.
As adults, they always vacationed together. They played the horses at Saratoga and played golf just about anywhere. Each played a role in every decision in the other's life. Pitino bought a summer residence a mile away from Minardi to be close to him. When Pitino became coach of the Knicks in 1987, Minardi moved within Westchester County to be closer to Pitino.
Minardi loved college basketball. He was at every Providence game Pitino coached and nearly every Boston University game, too. He was a fixture at Kentucky and all those NCAA Tournament games, and quickly became friends with the Kentucky people who were close to Pitino. In Pebble Beach, the two had compared schedules and Billy had determined he would make 14 of Louisville's 17 home games this season.
It was partly because of his devotion that Minardi was known and loved throughout college basketball. When Bobby Gonzalez, a Pitino coaching protege, became head coach at Manhattan College, Minardi's two sons went to Gonzalez's summer camp. Impressed, Minardi spread the word.
The next year, Gonzalez had 20 more kids, and 40 more by the following summer.
"He was one of those guys with unbelievable charisma, a great people person, genuine, funny, a lot of energy," Gonzalez said. "He would go up and talk to anybody. Bright guy, incredibly engaging guy, one of those guys you never forget."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has known Minardi since hiring Pitino as an assistant in 1976. Minardi, he said, was "the best." He telephoned Pitino last month to commiserate.
"It was a tough conversation," Boeheim said. "Billy was closer to him than a brother would be. It's tough."
For a man trying to forget, reminders are everywhere. Tears follow quickly. It begins when Pitino drives to work in the morning; that's when he and Billy called each other to start every day. It comes whenever Pitino plays a round of golf or attends a horse race. It hit most recently one evening when Pitino was watching the baseball playoffs.
"We were both tremendous Yankee fans," Pitino said, recalling evenings spent at Yankee Stadium and how they would call one another after games they watched on television. "I was crying like a baby."
Four, five, six times a day, Pitino will reach for his cell phone to call Minardi.
"Sometimes I just don't know what to do," Pitino told Gonzalez when the two shared dinner at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan two weeks ago. "I go to dial Billy's number. I can't believe it."
The occasion was like so many others -- a couple of bottles of wine, a couple of hundred stories, laughter segueing seamlessly into tears.
"He's trying to get a grip on Billy not being there," Gonzalez said. "He seems to be doing better."
By now, Pitino has had practice, too much practice, at dealing with personal grief. In 1987, in the midst of his signature run at Providence, his 6-month-old son Daniel died of congenital heart failure. Pitino tried to turn his son's death into something positive and began raising money for charity as a way to keep Daniel's name alive. Through an annual golf tournament and other events, he and Joanne have raised close to $4 million for children in need. The good deeds, he said, have healed that wound.
"We see it as a blessing," Pitino said. "This one I don't think time will ever heal."
As he spoke, he was thinking of Minardi's three children, the ones he'll see at every holiday, the ones now without a father. He was thinking about how he tried to break the news of Billy's death to Billy's 5-year-old daughter, and how he tried to explain that her father is in heaven. And he was remembering how the little girl asked Pitino to get her some balloons and how she wrote out two notes and attached them to two balloons and let them go in the backyard of the family house in Bedford.
"She wanted the balloons to get to heaven before her daddy to read the notes to say goodbye," Pitino said. "That was probably the toughest."
He stopped for a moment, eyes brimming with tears, and stared straight ahead. He reached for a bottle of water and took a drink, still silent.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Pitino told Minardi's wife, Stephanie, he would take the year off and move back to New York to help her get through it all. Her reply was succinct. "Billy would come down and kill you if you didn't coach," she said.
That's when Pitino remembered Minardi's love of the college game, how disappointed he was when Pitino left Kentucky for the Celtics, how elated he was when Pitino was considering the job at Louisville.
So Pitino is back in Louisville, back on the court, trying to revitalize a program. His players barely knew him when the planes struck. Then he was gone for several weeks. Before and after, they didn't know quite what to do or say. They all wrote cards and letters "to try to show him we were thinking about him," junior guard Reece Gaines said. "We just let him know if he needed somebody, we'd be there for him."
Gaines said the Cardinals are working as hard as they can -- not just to please Pitino, but to give him one less thing to worry about.
Gaines said that's the best thing they can do to help.
Pitino, he said, is the same coach he was before he left, "still pushing, still intense and trying to get us better."
Pitino agrees, to a degree. He doesn't expect his methods to change. But his approach is different. When Pitino used to get on a player in practice, he always made sure he picked the player back up before practice was over. Now he is more cognizant of other people's feelings. Now when he criticizes a player, he might finish with a hug.
"I won't ever lose my tremendous passion for the game or for winning," he said, "but I will accept losing much better than I have before."
In another sense, basketball means more now than it ever did. It has been a real refuge, something Pitino can throw himself into 12 hours a day to clear his mind and exhaust his body. By the time he gets home, he said, "I can have a glass of wine and pass out." No time to think. He worries about Joanne, who does not have that option.
As they did with Daniel, Rick and Joanne are trying to create hope in the midst of their despair. They've set up a foundation in Billy's name in Louisville and are starting a golf tournament there to raise funds. The Louisville players will be wearing a patch with the letter "B" on their uniforms, and the school is going to host a basketball tournament in his honor next season.
The first school to sign up was Manhattan.
"I definitely worry a little bit [about Pitino]," Gonzalez said. "He's gotten knocked back a little. It's like, man, I sit back and say, 'Coach doesn't need this.'"
That was pretty much the reaction among the 2,000 people who crowded into St. Francis of Assisi Church in Mount Kisco in late September for a memorial service for Minardi. In the crowd were Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard, Florida coach Billy Donovan, sportscaster Lesley Visser, NBA vice president Stu Jackson, Celtics coach Jim O'Brien, Providence coach Tim Welsh and Gonzalez.
As he had at Vogt's funeral six months earlier, Pitino delivered a eulogy.
"It was tremendous, very touching, especially for those who knew how close they were," Welsh said. "He's had a tough go. It's all come down on him at once here, from leaving a situation that didn't work out for him to losing two brothers-in-law in the last six months.
"I just shook my head. You know why he is who he is."
Pitino's friends are waiting for that guy to reappear, waiting for the Pitino who could energize a room by himself to emerge. Two years ago, after a bad day of betting at Saratoga, Pitino and company retired to a sports bar. There, he spontaneously decreed that Gonzalez and Willard would start a series. He flipped a coin and Manhattan went to Holy Cross last year.
The week before the game, Pitino started calling both coaches, riding them, egging them on, delighting in the pitched battle he had created.
They play this year on Nov. 23. Gonzalez hopes to get a phone call soon, maybe this week. He thinks that will mean Pitino will be OK.
"I think the basketball will be his saving grace," Gonzalez said.
Perhaps he's right.
It's autumn. Anything is possible.
--Michael Dobie (Newsday columnist)
Feb. 19, 2002
Whenever David Halpert thinks about his friend and partner William Minardi, he is reminded of the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson:
“And he was always quietly arrayed/and he was always human when he talked/But still he fluttered pulses when he said/ “Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.”
Minardi, who worked with Halpert for 20 years, first at the firm of RMJ, then at Cantor Fitzgerald, was a “winner,” a guy who had everything. “He never had a hair out of place,” Halpert said.
Minardi, 46, of Bedford, N.Y., was happily married -— to Stephanie, whom he met on the job -— with three children: William Jr., Robert, and Christine. He would wake up early every morning, work out, then head into work.
Evenings and weekends, he divided his time between the family and clients. Minardi was “the quintessential customer-service man,” said Halpert. All of his customers loved him; they became close friends.
He rewarded them with weekend golf outings and trips to Kentucky, where Rick Pitino -— Minardi’s brother-in-law and best friend -— coached basketball, first at the University of Kentucky, later at the University of Louisville.
“There are guys in your life that everybody considers winners,” he said. “They got the best jobs, they got the best girls. He was one of those guys that only good things happen to.”
—-Tom Coombe (The Morning Call)